'When I survey the wondrous cross' A Sermon for Good Friday

by Sr Ann Catherine Swailes o.p.

'When I survey the wondrous cross', we have just sung, as we sing, year by year, in one of the best known and best loved, of all English Passiontide hymns.  It is so familiar indeed, that perhaps we rarely stop to consider the oddity of that first line, but it is odd, to say the least.   Of course, the one who hung on the Cross is wondrous, with a wonder beyond human words, the fairest of the children of men and the image of the invisible God. But the Cross? How can anyone talk of a barbaric means of execution as “wondrous”?

And yet, what the 18th century author of our hymn glances at in passing respectability is spelled out much more insistently, much more wildly,  elsewhere in the long tradition of literary reflection on the Passion, in, for instance the great and enigmatic Anglo-Saxon poem, the Dream of the Rood. There, the poet invites us to gaze with him at a shimmering midnight vision of a bejewelled tree, covered with gold, wound round with light and surrounded by prostrate angels. As he – and we – look, and the tree finds a voice and reveals itself as nothing less than the True Cross of Christ, the gold is suffused with streaming blood, and with the sweat of the death, but the glory remains: “I was afraid” the dreamer tells us, as he beholds the mysterious tree, but it is the beauty of what he sees that frightens him: the wonder of the Cross.

The cross as wondrous, as beautiful: that is indeed a thought to instil fear, and incomprehension, even embarrassment, in any age, and not least in ours.  Our contemporaries have so much to say about the unhealthiness of the Christian attitude to suffering. Are we not moralistic killjoys at best, masochists (or worse) at worst? And by placing an instrument of torture at the centre of our religion and encouraging us to think of it as beautiful, does not the Church merit such accusations, glamorising pain in a way that anyone who is even slightly psychologically literate must find very disturbing indeed? At the very least, is there not something fake and evasive, something dubious, both morally and aesthetically, about painting the cross in glorious technicolour or studding it with gems, to be hung on our walls or around our necks?

Of course, our answer to all of that must be no: otherwise we would not be here tonight. But we need to hear the questions unflinchingly, because, underlying them all, I think, there are deeper questions about human suffering, questions to which, in fact, the troubling beauty of the Cross is the only answer, an answer which our world longs to hear from us. 

Many of us have doubtless been rendered speechless when others have asked us, whether aggressively or wistfully, how we can believe in God when there is so much suffering in the world. Perhaps, confronted with our own affliction or that of those we love, or the latest heart-breaking headline, we have posed the same question ourselves, and been similarly reduced to silence.  And that inarticulacy is no bad thing: far better, surely, than the neat and tidy answers that are sometimes purveyed but ultimately unsatisfying. What good is it to talk of human free will, or the power of suffering to educate, to those crushed beneath the weight of intolerable distress?  What we see when we dare really to gaze steadily at human affliction, after all, is not “the problem of pain”, resolvable if only we pull ourselves together and think clearly enough, but the mystery of suffering, vast, overwhelming and deadening. And yet, we do long to have something to say to ourselves, to each other, in the face of unspeakable anguish. As we set out, for the last time this Passiontide, to walk with Jesus his way to Calvary, can we find any such words of comfort?

Secular bafflement with the wondrous cross surely springs above all from an inability to believe that suffering can co-exist with human dignity. In itself, that is a generous instinct, paying a kind of backhanded compliment to the Christian teaching that we are made in the divine image and likeness: after all, how can it be right that a godlike creature should be reduced to inarticulate animal whimpering? But such a stance can tip all too easily over into a desire to tidy away all human vulnerability, to sanitize all those moments, like the moment of birth and the moment of death, when we can no longer deceive ourselves into thinking that we are in control, leading, ultimately, to a kind of cult of the perfect and the powerful.  Paradoxically, it can seem to tell those who suffer that their pain and powerlessness dehumanises them: surely, it must be in the strongest, the cleverest, the most beautiful that we see the image of the all-powerful, all-knowing and all lovely God most fully displayed, and the further one is from that image, the further from being fully human. Thus an additional burden is laid upon those who are already perhaps immobilised by their pain as their life is evacuated, apparently, of meaning and purpose. 

Yet the gospel says something different. It tells us, uncompromisingly, that we see the perfect image of God in a man transfixed in agony on a cross, where, the theologians of old loved to tell us, Jesus gives birth to the Church.  The pains of crucifixion, then, are the birth pangs of the body of Christ into which we are baptized, so that henceforth, his sufferings are our sufferings, but also, extraordinarily, ours are his: part of the suffering that redeemed the world. And this is doubly consoling.  If our own pain is taken up into the pain of Jesus, even when it seems to humiliate and defeat us, we can still be assured that we have the dignity of sons and daughters of God, cooperating with Jesus for the salvation of the world he loves.  And in comforting others in their distress, we are actually walking with Jesus himself on his way to Golgotha. We are being Simon of Cyrene. We are being the women of Jerusalem. We are being Veronica with her handkerchief.  I think of the SVP, going nightly onto the streets of Cambridge, giving soup and sandwiches to the homeless, and offering them the tender and costly touch of companionship. I think of an elderly woman refusing to allow her own fear and grief to prevent her from ministering consolation to her husband of decades as he confronts the passion of dementia. Those experiences of confession in which the administration of the sacrament is akin to wiping the face of one labouring under the cross, which I strongly suspect are occasions of gratitude as much for priest as for penitent. All of that is beautiful indeed. 

But there’s another kind of mistake we Christians can make about suffering, surely much rarer, thank God, than some of our contemporaries suspect, but perhaps more damaging than they could know. Precisely because the suffering Christian is endowed with such immense dignity by the cross of Christ, some have thought that Christians should seek suffering for its own sake, that suffering should be embraced rather than shunned, that the more we suffer, the better Christians we shall be.   If ever we are tempted to this – and it is a dark and a terrible temptation – we need to identify the source of light with which the Cross shines, the source of its beauty. And that is nothing other than the radiance of Easter morning. 

 

If the story of Jesus had ended on Good Friday, it would be profoundly perverse to claim that there was anything beautiful, anything wondrous about the Cross. Yet another brutal judicial murder, one more mangled body thrown away as collateral damage in a murky political power struggle, is not beautiful, not wondrous: simply routinely obscene. But we know that tonight is not the end of the story, because we know who this is who hangs between two thieves. We know that it is God himself who hangs there, who has stepped down into our world with all its sorrows, not in order to glorify our affliction, but in order to lift us with him into the bliss of heaven. 

Tonight, we shall make the way of the Cross in silence, guided only by a few words of scripture. But we may find that the mental background music to which we walk will be joyful: not so much the Stabat Mater as the Exultet:  We know the end of the story.  The victory is accomplished, the heavenly powers around God’s throne exult even as the Lord sleeps in death, because when he wakes, the members of his body will wake with him into the springtime loveliness of the resurrection.  And once we allow that truth to penetrate us, our hearts will be full of a joy, and a beauty that no one can take from us, because it will be the beauty and the joy of Christ himself.

To Praise, To Bless, To Preach.